This year, as with pretty much every year in recent memory, the narrative of the Best Actress race has been mostly depressing. As my colleague Dan Kois has noted, only one of this year’s female nominees was in a film deemed worthy of a Best Picture nod—and that outlier is Felicity Jones, “who’s playing the wife of a famous scientist.” In a thoughtful examination for Grantland back in December, when the race appeared markedly different from today’s outcome, Mark Harris deemed the category “an award for Best Exception to the Rule.” “We’ve been talking about the Best Actress race as if actresses—adult women who are given central, movie-carrying roles of depth and range—are actually permitted to participate in Hollywood’s current economy outside of YA and genre movies,” he wrote. “They aren’t.”
I don’t dispute that Hollywood, and by extension, the academy, has a gender problem it doesn’t want to address. But in the same spirit as my reaction to the bizarre Selma snub, I think it’s crucial to look at the silver lining in this year’s Best Actress nominees: The nuanced, well-received “woman’s story” is gradually gaining more awards recognition, if not yet on a Best Picture scale.
Take a look at the nominees: Reese Witherspoon in Wild; Julianne Moore in Still Alice; Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night; Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl; Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything. In the first three of those picks, there is no male lead. In Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about backpacking solo on the Pacific Crest Trail, most of the men pop up for a scene or two, providing comic relief or fleeting companionship, both platonic and sexual. There is never any doubt that Cheryl is at the center of the story.
The same can be said for Alice in Still Alice and Sandra in Two Days, One Night. They get by far the most screen time in their films and wrestle with potentially devastating obstacles, early onset Alzheimer’s Disease in the former and desperate financial hardship in the latter. Unlike Jones’ role as Jane Wilde Hawking, these are unquestionably their stories, told for their sakes, not because of their relationships to male characters.
The role of Amy in Gone Girl is more complicated. Depending upon your point of view, the character as portrayed by Pike may be a subversive feminist overturning the impossible ideals set out by a sexist culture, or she may be little more than a modern-day Hitchcockian blonde. But don’t let Ben Affleck’s plump role as her beleaguered husband Nick fool you: Amy is the center of this story, enigmatic and complex, and we glean so much more about her psyche than we ever do about Nick’s.
Amid legitimate pleas for more and better roles for women, the academy has slowly but surely shown increased appreciation for women not named Meryl Streep who truly take center stage. Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine and Sandra Bullock in Gravity. Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild and Emmanuelle Riva in Amour. Over the last 15 years, you’ll find many Oscar-nominated women’s roles for movies that truly are the woman’s story: her tragedy, triumph—and they’re not all based on real-life figures.
Having four out of five such nominees this year competing for that award is not going to solve the industry’s greater problem of not telling enough stories about women. And it is disappointing that such movies are deemed less-than by the academy. Still, this year’s nominees have more to say about the female perspective than any collective group in recent years—and that is a small reward in itself.